Ambika Singh relies on women, who have not previously invested in businesses, to help fund her project.
IT’S CLEAR Ambika Singh knows nearly everyone in the room — in fact, many of the women floating around the packed Capitol Hill celebration seem to gravitate toward her. Wearing a bright yellow shirt and a huge smile, she whispers urgently to a friend, adds a big laugh and takes the informal stage in the open lobby of The Riveter’s co-working space.
Along with Riveter co-founder Amy Nelson, Singh welcomes the crowd to the wine-filled happy hour organized to cheer on all the women who were named to a local list honoring notable businesspeople under the age of 40.
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Singh, 33, made the list for serving as chief executive and co-founder of startup Armoire, a clothing rental company for women. To get even this far, she has had to be a constant advocate for her 2-year-old company. Tonight is no exception.
“And now, we wouldn’t be very good entrepreneurs if we didn’t end with a specific ask,” Singh says with a laugh, going straight for the hard sell, and managing to come off as somehow confident and self-deprecating at the same time. “So, please, if you haven’t yet, sign up for Armoire.”
Singh says asking women to become customers is easier than asking them to invest in the company. Asking for investors can be tough no matter what, but is especially challenging for female CEOs in the United States, where the numbers paint a grim picture. Only 2 percent of venture capital funding in the United States goes to startups with all female founders, according to PitchBook Data. That percentage increases slightly when a team that is majority female has more than one male co-founder.
Four of Armoire’s six co-founders are women. The company has managed to raise $4.7 million from investors, a testament to Singh’s tireless pitching. When pitching to traditional firms fails, she works to bring in and train the next generation of backers. Many of her investors are women who have never thrown money into a company. Singh says she enjoys the responsibility of making sure all her new investors know what they’re getting into.
WHEN IT COMES down to it, Singh was never one to take a back seat.
Her confidence bloomed early in life, sown by parents who were always willing to put trust and latitude in her antics. She insisted, at age 16, on planning the family’s annual Christmas trip. It would be to Nicaragua, and she, her younger brother and parents would be staying in a different town each night.
“She bought me my first travel backpack,” Singh’s mom, Rubie, says, shaking her head slightly with the memory of the trip — which involved a long flight, a cab to a bus stop, an hourslong bus ride complete with braying goats … and finally a remote hotel.
“I had a Lonely Planet book that I thought made me really empowered!” Singh says to her parents in her kitchen nearly two decades after the trip, laughing at the retelling of her somewhat-haphazard planning.
Singh lives with her husband, Shankar Sundaram, in a renovated church on Capitol Hill. The building — which still retains the outside signs identifying it as a house of worship — has been split into condos with arching ceilings and stained-glass windows. The pair bought their upscale home during a slump in the market, and then lived there for several months without a lick of furniture. Eventually, Rubie took pity on them and brought over a card table to grace the dining room.
A few weeks after her Riveter celebration, Singh and Sundaram are hosting her parents for lunch, in a now fully outfitted dining room. Her father, Pradeep, has broken out an album from his daughter’s wedding while his family cooks curry leaf rice — or rather, the usual family chefs, Rubie and Sundaram, cook, giving Singh very specific tasks to complete. “They are very supportive of me trying to cook,” Singh says. “It’s like, the fact that I managed to put milk into the coffee will get lauded.” (She does.)
Pradeep points to a picture from the couple’s Leavenworth wedding, one that shows Singh’s fun-loving spirit. There she is, in full traditional Indian wedding clothes, cradling the family’s airedale terrier, Layla, while being carried into the celebration on a wooden platform. This isn’t exactly by-the-book Punjabi tradition.
In keeping with tradition on their wedding day, Sundaram entered on a horse into the crowd of friends and family.
“Making it really fun for the guy!” Singh says.
Singh wanted a grand entrance, too, even though traditionally, the bride waits inside while the groom is celebrated.
“You’re locked in like a tower!” Singh says.
Instead, she asked her brother and a few cousins to carry her in. They readily agreed, though Singh says they might have regretted it once they realized how heavy the platform was and how hot the summer day had become.
PRADEEP AND RUBIE live in Bellevue, and in their semiretired state, split their time between the Eastside and their home country of India. The Singhs moved to Washington state three days before Microsoft went public, a funny — and lucrative — coincidence in timing. Pradeep worked for the tech giant for more than eight years before leaving to start a string of his own software companies, later establishing a family investment firm.
When Singh emerged from MIT with an MBA in 2016 — and an idea and a small team to start Armoire — Pradeep tried to invest in her company. She refused. This happened, repeatedly, over the next two years.
“I think I wanted to do it on my own,” she says. “I wanted investor validation so it wasn’t just that I believed in it, and my dad believed in it.”
Pradeep, on the other hand, just saw that as inefficient. He knew firsthand how time-consuming raising money can be, and how much the process can slow the early stages of a business.
“My thought was, ‘Look; this is a good idea,’ ” he says. “ ‘Why don’t you just get along with doing the good idea?’ ”
Perhaps it’s just that women are always overprepared, Singh muses, or that they often seek even more validation than is necessary. Either way, she was going to give it a go.
Many investors — male investors, it should be noted, as the vast majority of venture capitalists are men — gave her blank stares. Once, she pitched a room of 10 angel investors, all men.
“Not to toot my own horn, but I’m a good presenter,” Singh says. “I can crush a pitch.”
But they just didn’t get it, she says: couldn’t see the business, didn’t understand why women might be attracted to the idea of buying fewer clothes. It became clear to Singh that the issue wasn’t so much that she was a woman, but rather that her company was geared solely toward women. She says many male investors just didn’t have a gut feel for it.
And, as any investor will tell you: Go with your gut.
So, OK; that was fine. Singh was never one to give up after trying the obvious path. She went with two other main tactics — first, impress the traditional investors with the cold, hard numbers of the business, and get the women in their lives on her side. If the investors’ wives or daughters tried Armoire and liked it, she had an in. It worked occasionally — Singh remembers meeting again with one of the angel investors from her earlier pitch. This time, the investor’s wife, now an Armoire customer, came along. She and Singh sat on the same side of the table.
Second, if you are having little luck with established investors, what do you do? Train your own. Singh found herself with a group of nearly 10 female investors who had never before backed a company, but decided to invest in Armoire after starting as customers. She feels, if possible, overly protective of them.
“We were very, very upfront, I hope, about how they should be willing to lose this money,” she says, pointing the new investors to stats that show that more than 70 percent of startups fail nationally. “Like women do, instead of just taking the money and running, I was like more terrified of taking on investors and duping them.”
SINGH EVENTUALLY did accept an investment from her family’s firm as part of raising $3.5 million total this fall, about a year after raising $1.2 million. The numbers surrounding funding that goes to female founders are dismal, Singh says. But pure statistics mask the huge community of women who have helped her.
“That does not tell the story of what the tribe will look like and how they’ll come to bat for you and how they’ll lift you up and make you successful by their own sheer will,” she says.
Hers includes Nelson, the co-founder of women-focused co-working space The Riveter, where Armoire keeps its offices. Singh and Nelson met because they were both raising money at the same time, and investors kept pointing out how similar their companies were. It turns out … they really aren’t. They just both cater to women.
The pair had a laugh over that, then formed a partnership — Riveter customers get a discount off Armoire, and Armoire gets a discount on office space. Which is good, because racks of clothes take up an awful lot of space — an industrial garage’s worth of space, really.
Armoire’s offices span much of the bottom floor of The Riveter on Capitol Hill, including a big warehouse packed full of colorful sweaters, slacks and jackets. More than 15,000 pieces of clothing fill the space, which used to be a garage on Auto Row. When Armoire started, Singh bought clothes on sale, figuring that would be the best way to buy as much as the growing company needed.
The company then brought on Brittany Seabaugh, a former Nordstrom merchandiser, who took one look around and said, “We can be doing this better.” So Armoire started partnering with brands to buy wholesale, and Seabaugh and her team — many of whom have fashion and retail backgrounds — work buying clothes, making minor alterations, styling customers and deciding when an item needs to come out of rotation (it is most often then donated).
Armoire customers pay a flat $149 fee each month to rent four items of clothing at a time, which they can send back and swap out as many times as they want. The company had revenue of $100,000 in October, and ships about 100 packages a day.
Singh is the first to say she is not a fashionista — far from it. She’s a self-described tomboy. But she has caught on pretty quickly, and now feels a bit sad when clothes come back from customers damaged. Armoire tries to send out each item 15 times, but some get worn out before then.
“I’d say in a high percentage of those cases, the man of the house gets blamed [often because of laundry mishaps],” Singh says. “It used to be catastrophic. Some would get destroyed, and I would actually cry. I don’t cry anymore.”
Armoire runs on the premise that women don’t really need to buy clothes every time the season changes, or they go on vacation, or start a new job. Instead, they can rent them, let someone else clean them and always have something new to wear. Singh came up with the idea when she was working in software sales five years ago, a highly visible job that had her traveling so much, she couldn’t get enough laundry done.
It’s sometimes tough to convince women to try rental, she says, but once most of them do, they stayed hooked. Armoire has set up a small dressing studio at The Riveter — in what once was used as the confession room for “The Real World: Seattle” — where customers can come in and get a free, in-person fashion consultation.
Or, it can be used as a last-minute dressing studio for a public official … say, Sen. Maria Cantwell. Singh’s first job out of college was working for the senator as an intern, and she saw her again this fall while Cantwell was speaking for an event at The Riveter.
During Cantwell’s panel discussion, the senator’s aide rushed over to Singh, quickly explaining that Cantwell’s schedule had shifted a bit, and that she didn’t have the correct outfit for her next evening event.
“Can you dress the senator?” he asked her.
“Yes, I can,” Singh said, thinking about her life coming full circle. “I was born for this.”
“In three minutes?” he clarified.
“No, I cannot,” she said.
But she could, and she quickly ran downstairs, where another Armoire employee was still working. The two basically hurled clothes at Cantwell, she says.
“She’s very decisive!” Singh says. In less than three minutes, Cantwell had picked out a collared shirt and a blazer and was on her way.
Singh wants Armoire’s clothes to be convenient and feel good — and often that means working with female designers, a decision that dovetails nicely with her drive to boost other women’s careers. Armoire’s 25-person staff includes 22 women.
ON A WEDNESDAY NIGHT in September, much of the team has stayed late to finish end-of-the-month tasks, and then to head to nearby restaurant Fogón Cocina Mexicana, their unofficial off-site office. The bar is just a couple blocks from Armoire’s first office … which was really just a friend’s apartment.
They called it an “aparfice,” and for a while, co-founder Zach Owen lived there with another employee. On top of that, the whole team would pack inside, using the bathroom for its given use, and to hand-wash clothes. Fortunately, much of the team was already close before the close quarters.
Singh was specifically warned during business school to avoid working with her friends. Even family was better, her professors insisted. Or, hey: Try former co-workers.
“I would say that has been absolutely the wrong advice for us,” she says. “We found that it gives us the same sort of values. We’re friends because we like each other as people. The other thing is, when times are tough, if you’re not willing to do it for Armoire, you’re willing to do it for each other.”
One of Singh’s friends from her undergrad days, Shefali McDermott, serves as director of operations, which early on included acting as chaser-down of the USPS woman who served the apartment building.
Shefali was also a measurement for how fast the company was growing. They had a celebration the first time they had “more than a Shefali of packages,” or a stack of outgoing packages that towered above her 5-foot-2 frame.
Sundaram joins the group for Fogón after the late-night work party. He regularly makes it to Armoire’s events, and can recite statistics about the business at the drop of a hat. Singh’s parents can, as well. Actually, so can her brother, Kahran. Armoire is a pretty common topic of conversation.
“I’d say it’s about 80 percent what we talk about,” Sundaram says, as he finishes making lunch with Rubie for the family.
“That’s not true!” Singh insists. “We talk about your work, too!”
To be fair, Rubie points out, she and Sundaram also spend quite a bit of time talking about food. Plus, Singh remembers, they discuss their dog, Bhima, all the time.
“It’s like 50 percent Bhima,” she says. “The percentages are starting to add up!”
Her family is often blunt with her, Singh says, and won’t mince words if they think something won’t work. She appreciates it. Armoire wouldn’t be what it is without the confidence they all still instill in her life.